Justin Taylor, "humble giant" of farmed shellfish industry, is dead at 90.

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Out on the South Sound tide flats, his clam rake in hand and waders sinking in the muck, Justin Taylor was deeply at home.

Born in Shelton, Mason County, on Feb. 16, 1921, Mr. Taylor helped build his family business, Taylor Shellfish, into a family dynasty now in the fifth generation, and the largest shellfish-farming business in the country. Lucid and vital until his last days, he died suddenly Monday of heart failure. He had just turned 90.

A Navy veteran, Mr. Taylor served on the USS Texas during World War II, enduring enemy fire at Normandy, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, then went back to serve his country again on a Navy oil tanker during the Korean War.

He had a high-school education, and the mind of a Renaissance man, stoked by a lifelong curiosity, reading everything he could get his hands on, and still coming into the office at Taylor Shellfish in Shelton nearly every day to share a clipping he had just read, and go out for lunch with his sons or visit with employees, said his son, Bill, vice president of the company.

Married 55 years to Carol Hunter Taylor, Mr. Taylor raised three children, and lived to see the business founded by his father not only grow, but pass on successfully to the fifth generation. The company has about 600 employees, 9,000 acres of shellfish beds in production, customers all over the world and operations in the U.S., Canada, Hong Kong and Fiji.

But Puget Sound was Mr. Taylor’s home, and he fought for its cleanup and conservation long before it was a popular cause, filing one of the first environmental lawsuits ever in Washington against the pulp-mill industry.

He kept at it. A letter written in his firm hand in 2009 to Gov. Chris Gregoire reads: “I am writing this because of my concern for Puget Sound. I am 88 years old and still get out on the tide flats most daylight tides. I am appalled at the ever-increasing decline of water quality.”

Seldom seen wearing anything but a work shirt, bill cap and waders over his work pants, when he wasn’t digging in the muck he was out clearing brush. And that was just a few weeks ago.

“I would look out and see Justin in the bay, and I would feel everything is all right in the world,” said Brett Bishop, his neighbor and owner of Little Skookum Shellfish Growers. “His approach to life was one shovelful at a time, and he achieved incredible things, just working away at the task at hand.”

As a young man Mr. Taylor logged by hand with a crosscut saw, later using a chain saw in the redwoods of Northern California. He gave up working in the woods when he married, considering the work too dangerous for a family man, and returned in 1956 to the shellfish beds of Puget Sound, slowly buying up property and building the business. Known for his modesty, Mr. Taylor was the type to park his rig a long way from the headquarters office or processing plant, to leave the good spots for other people — even though he was nearly 90.

“That is just the kind of person he was,” said Duane Fagergren, a shellfish grower and neighbor for 62 years. “He was the mentor for a lot of us growers, and he did it in the quietest way.”

Seattle marketing guru Jon Rowley worked on projects for the company for more than 20 years, and usually could tell by the tides where to find Mr. Taylor: in the office when the tide was up, and down on the flats when it dropped. “He rarely missed a minus tide.

“He was a humble giant, and a real friend of the water. He had a real bond with the Sound, and the waterman’s life, he was just grounded in that way more than anyone I have ever known.”

Mr. Taylor grew up alongside Squaxin Island tribal members, with whom his family formed close friendships. His family gifted to the tribe the land on which its museum and cultural center stands, and his relationships with tribal members stretch back to childhood.

“He was a good friend of the tribe,” said Pete Kruger, member of the Squaxin Island Tribal Council, who noted that Mr. Taylor’s reputation was a positive force when Western Washington treaty tribes and the shellfish industry worked through a settlement of a long-festering legal battle over shellfish rights.

“It would have been easy to pit one side against another,” shellfish grower Brett Bishop said. “But he was never that way, one thing he never compromised on was respect for the people around him.”

Bill Taylor remembered a father who encouraged his kids to take risks, and did not criticize them if they made mistakes — even allowing him and his brother to make a solo hike in the Olympics while in eighth and sixth grades — then praising them when a June snow convinced them to turn back.

“My dad was not a real flashy type of person, but he gave my brother and sister and I a lot of self-confidence. He allowed us to make decisions very early on,” Bill Taylor said. Mostly, he said he learned from his father how to treat people.

“Just seeing him sitting and talking and listening to people, he cared about people. And they knew that.”

In addition to his wife and son, Bill, Mr. Taylor is survived by his son, Paul, and daughter, Janet Pearson, all of Olympia, and nine grandchildren.

A memorial service is 1 p.m. Saturday at Westwood Baptist Church in Olympia, 333 Kaiser Rd. N.W. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial contributions be made to the Puget Sound Restoration Fund or Union Gospel Mission.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com